What's the Problem Houston?
So a couple of weeks ago, we received the following plaintive missive/statement of intent in our inbox, from Fitzgerald's booking manager Frances Tofte:
"Houston... Do we have a problem??? Is it oversaturation? Is it lack of interest? Is it lack of talent? Is it lack of promotion? Does the smoking ban have anything to do with it? Why does it seem that the Houston music scene is on the decline? Why are the smaller clubs closing or changing formats? Why are the local show crowds getting smaller and smaller with each passing show?"
To ferret out answers to those questions and more, Tofte resolved to have a town hall meeting at Fitz's last Sunday.
"It's happening in other markets as well," continued Tofte's manifesto. "Austin is dying slowly, Dallas is all but dead, San Antonio seems to still have some life in their metal scene, but Houston... we have a problem!"
Both assistant music editor Chris Gray and I were puzzled by all the drama in the release. Sure, the music scenes that Gray and I inhabit could be better, but we didn't have occasion to continually resort to clichés from Apollo 13 in our lamentations. And what I know of the goings-on in Dallas and Austin seems to be even more contrary to such weeping and wailing.
The meeting had a few of the hallmarks of the Houston Band Coalition, a confederation of local buzz-rock, rap-rock and active-rock bands that time and fashion have passed by. This cry from the heart came from the land of big-ass beer specials, cold Jäger machines, Red Bull can-shaped tables and advertised UFC-viewing events, where "every night is industry night."
These were the rock bands that still sported turntablists sincerely. It's the city's skuzzy rock underbelly — the tattered remnants of what used to be the mainstream — that is feeling the pinch.
To their credit, it's not like the HBC doesn't acknowledge the fact that they might simply be dying a natural death, as they mentioned lack of talent and fan interest.
As well they should. Here's an example of "thinking outside of the box": Houston Band Coalition-type music has "jumped the shark." Despite a lack of radio play, indie has replaced "alternative" as the new mainstream. When an indie-rock bar like the Forum opens in what was once the skuzz-rock stronghold of La Porte, what was once a trend has crossed "the tipping point" into a full-on "paradigm shift." (Sorry, the "Houston, we have a problem" references have me stuck in cliché-land.)
At any rate, I decided to head over there for the talk. About 45 people were there, and it looked like it was 1998, with all the tribal tats, Fred Durst-style ball-cap/shades-stashed-on-top headgear, baggy jeans and Vans. Men outnumbered women about seven to one. Many, if not quite most, of the people in attendance — your humble reporter included — were significantly overweight.
To the uninitiated, the meeting could have passed for any number of other gatherings. Were it not for the beer, it could have been a "cool" Christian youth group in Humble or a substance abuse support group therapy session.
When I walked in, Tofte from Fitzgerald's was lamenting the lack of promotion effort put forth by bands. It seems, and I totally agree with her here, that too many bands today consider spamming people on MySpace to be as valuable a promotion tool as distributing old-school flyers in the clubs and streets. It's not.
Tofte also lamented the fact that shows at small suburban clubs with crappy P.A.'s were packed while those at Fitz's were sparsely attended, despite its rockin' system and cool lights. Did gas prices have something to do with this?
After a brief foray into the also-struggling Inner Loop country scene courtesy of Alabama Ice House/Blanco's band booker Steve Smith, a clean-headed fellow from the band Osirus wondered why, in a town of seven million, so few came to shows. (Wait a minute — we have seven million people here now?)
Next, a young woman in a Schoolhouse Rock! T-shirt piped up from the wings, complaining that too many clubs failed to advertise their booze specials. "At the Scout Bar, everybody knows that they have two-dollar Jägers on one of their off nights," she said. "I like that. If I am gonna spend $30 in gas to get to and from a club, I want to know that I can afford a couple of extra shots."
I get it — the more cheap shots you drink, the more you save on gas! By my math, 22 shots of Jägers equals a free tank for my Camry! Ludacris's "Move Bitch" popped in my head: "I'm doin' a hundred on the highway, So if you do the speed limit, get the FUCK outta my way, I'm D.U.I., hardly ever caught soberand you about to get ran the FUCK over."
GoGirlsRock director Madalyn Sklar spoke next, using words to the effect that everybody should pull together as a team, and added this: "I go to a lot of shows all over the country, probably more even than I go to here..." whereupon she was cut off by a guy in the crowd.
"How do you support the scene here," he wanted to know. Turns out he is a manager at downtown's Rocbar.
"I do support the scene here," she said. "It's just that I see things in other towns that I think we could do better here."
The Rocbar manager, whose name was Chris, has this pet peeve. Bands approach him to play shows. He asks them what they think of his venue. They say they have never been. They don't get to play. "If you can't get out there and support the other bands and support my bar, then why should I give you my money?" he wondered.
The A-listers of this gathering were some members of this scene's most prominent band — LoneStar PornStar. I am not a fan of this style of rock, but I will say this: LSPS is very good at what they do. Their shows are events, they are musically tight, they work hard to pack the house when they play. Whatever success they have is richly earned.
At the meeting, LSPS singer Gregg Stegman said that the decline was a long time in coming. He was sad that more people did not come to the meeting, as some had inaccurately perceived this gathering as being all about the smoking ban. (The smoking ban was by and large vindicated — most believed that it had caused a little hiccup and then people had learned to deal with it.) He also echoed the club people's complaints — bands didn't do enough to promote their own shows. Bands didn't do enough to create relationships with their fans. He said rockers should learn from rappers in these respects.
The meeting was slated to go on for another couple of hours after this, but I took my leave about then. The minutes to the meeting are posted at www.hbclive.com/showthread.php?t=5575&page=12, as is a mammoth 12-page discussion thread about the woes of Houston's skuzz-rock scene.
There, early in the comments, Fender Phil, one of Stegman's LSPS bandmates, got even closer to the mark when he posted this: "I don't think it's the smoking ban that is keeping ppl out of the bars. It's Guitar Hero.That and a total lack of A+++++ quality bands out there. (Yeah, I said it...) It seems like anyone that has a guitar is starting bands.... Regardless of talent, or ambition... I have found most musicians get gear because they want to sound like band X...For instance, look at a musician search online... most ads influences include metal, death, speed, and beer usually. I guess people are just too willing to settle with mediocre musicians, and they put it out there, and this is the result we get. Lack of audience at shows. Who the hell wants to hear the same riffs over and over again? I don't, that's for sure."
I'll cosign with that part of his post wholeheartedly. Guitar Hero is a factor. And it is just too easy these days. You and your buds start a band. You slap together some derivative crap and throw it on MySpace, and your friends and families tell you that you rock. (Hell, so does Guitar Hero, over and over again.) You can't but believe them and are deluded into thinking you're ready to play publicly, and maybe some booker sees all the hits on your MySpace and takes the bait. You get a show, and you're mediocre at best. Not even your friends come to your next show. Repeat ten thousand times all across America.
But then Fender Phil had to go and add this: "Whatever happened to all the skinheads from the '90s? They must be 40-ish by now... Are they our doctors? Lawyers? Could your chiropractor have a swastika tattooed on their back? Could your dentist be a member of the Aryan Youth?
"Unfortunately, the skins made up a HUGE fanbase back in the day. ...as mean as those bastards were, they were organized to support the local scene. (Even if they DID try to burn down the clubs, at least they were all on the same page...lol)."
Those days sucked. And if people are pining for them now, even jokingly, maybe it's better if that scene continued to wither.
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